Dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. In Morse code, this spells out the letters S-O-S, which were officially adopted in 1908 as the international universal distress signal. The letters take on another meaning in Murrysville where a small army of middle schoolers, led by a math teacher, are Serving Other Souls.
This winter, SOS students — wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Got Empathy?" — coordinated a food drive that provided 85 Thanksgiving dinners and delivered 100 backpacks filled with coats and clothes to homeless shelters.
Franklin Regional School District seventh grade math teacher Chris Cooley is group founder.. Volunteers are his middle school students and though they give a lot, they get back something that Mr. Cooley believes will resonate throughout their lives: empathy, or caring for others. That simple seed was planted in Mr. Cooley when he was a kid.
“I remember one of my teachers gave me the opportunity to tutor other kids. Something about helping someone else stuck with me from then on,“ he said.
He started the local SOS in 2011, after the tsunami in Japan and the tornado in neighboring Hempfield.
"I took 50 kids out to the Salvation Army headquarters in Greensburg to help with the food donation to Hempfield. I had also come across a company in Seattle that was raising funds for tsunami victims by paying a dollar for every origami paper crane we could make. So the kids back at school were making the paper cranes. I think we raised about $300.”
After the projects were complete, as Mr. Cooley was talking with the kids about their experience, he discovered two important things.
“I found that 49 of the 50 kids had never before done a service-based activity.They also told me it was the best thing they had ever done. I think kids today are so busy with activities they don’t get the opportunity to help others,'' Mr. Cooley said.
Since those initial projects, S.O.S has raised more than $100,000 in donations and goods. Now the group ha about 100 members who pay annual dues o f $40 and meet twice a month to coordinate service projects.
They hold an annual Thanksgiving food drive, a clothing drive for homeless and an annual Miles of Smiles 5K race from which proceeds are divided among families that have a member battling a life-threatening illness. The original 5K Miles of Smiles races were organized to raise money to help the Carney family of Plum.
From 2008 through 2012, proceeds from the race, more than $5,000 each year, were donated to help the family with medical bills for Sunny, wife and mother of three who suffered with carcinoid cancer for 10 years.
In 2012, the night before the race, Sunny, 41, passed away. Her husband Mark and her three sons insisted the race go on.
“Every community has a legacy of someone who handles the burden of having a terminal disease so well it acts as an inspiration. That was Sunny,'' Mr. Cooley said.
For the past two years, however, the SOS brigade has come to the rescue. In 2011 three families in the region received $4,440 and last year, two families received $9,634 to help with medical and other expenses.
One of those recipients, Bruce Linhart, 48, of Plum suffered from a rare auto immune disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis or PSC, which attacks the liver causing bile to back up and destroy tissue. he has been hospitalized nine times and had to quit his job.
“I can tell you SOS does a lot of good work,'' Mr. Linhart said. "It was a shock to know that there are people out there in the community doing God’s work to help others,” he said. “Their help was invaluable. I was on disability. It was hard to pay the bills. I can’t tell you how thankful I am to Chris Cooley and the effort, time and sacrifice of his group.”
Last November, Mr. Linhart received a liver transplant when his brother in-law, Andrew Spears, donated half of his liver. Barring any setbacks, the partial liver in each man will regenerate to a fully functioning organ. “When I get back on my feet, you can bet I’ll be helping the SOS group as a volunteer,'' Mr. Linhart said.
Emma Jaffe, an 8th grader at Franklin Regional, is one of the SOS team leaders. She joined the group because a lot of her friends had.
“It makes me feel grateful for what I have. You get a really good feeling,” she said. “It’s important because we are teenagers and most people don’t think teenagers care about others. But Mr. Cooley gives us the opportunity to give something to others.''
“'Got empathy?' says it all,” said Emma’s mother, Jill Jaffe. “I think she is now more aware of other people outside of the little circle we live in.''
Mr. Cooley is in process of filing for 501c3, non-profit status. Once approved, he will look for teachers in other schools who want to run an SOS chapter. He hopes other schools use his success as a model.
Tim Means, freelance writer: email@example.com.